And the Extended Life Span Goes to . . . the Oscar Winner!

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

When it comes to the Academy Awards, winning is, in fact, everything. The actors and actresses who take home one of those statuettes can count on living 3.9 years longer than the losers.

This, as Donald A. Redelmeier is fond of pointing out, is a big deal -- a 28 percent relative reduction in death rates, and the statistical equivalent of "curing all cancers in all people for all time."

So if you were wondering why Katharine Hepburn (96) lived so long and Richard Burton didn't (58), now you know. She won four Oscars. He was nominated seven times and won zip.

Researchers have long known that higher social status can indicate longer life. One famous study of British civil servants found that mortality rates declined as pay grades rose. An analysis of a 19th-century Irish cemetery showed that longer lives won taller gravestones.

Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, tried the analysis on the Oscars after watching the awards ceremony. "I was struck by just how vivacious the people looked," he said. "The way they gestured and walked seemed so different."

And it was. Beginning with a paper published in 2001, Redelmeier has run the numbers for every actor and actress ever nominated for the award, counting each nominee once for his or her highest achievement. Paul Newman, who is 81 and had one win in nine nominations, ended up a "winner," while Burton died a "nominee."

The pattern was clear. Life expectancy for winners -- men and women in lead and supporting roles -- was 79.7 years, vs. 75.8 years for losers.

Redelmeier suggests that winners bump up their social status, enabling them to live longer "in the shadow of past accomplishments," a luxury not afforded losers, who, he speculated, "are only as good as their last picture."

-- Guy Gugliotta

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